Pastor Hopkins preached this sermon on the First Sunday After Trinity, 6/23/2019. The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the First Sunday After Trinity, click here.
No further illustration is necessary. The story that Jesus tells, whether it’s a historical account or a parable, already makes sense to just about everyone. The story makes sense because it’s how we think the world ought to work. The rich man has good stuff, and Lazarus doesn’t. But that’s okay, because it all evens out eventually. You’ve heard that expressed in phrases like “What goes around comes around.” Or “Karma finally caught up with him.”
That kind of thinking will leave you always looking over your shoulder, wondering when the universe is going to even the score. But that’s not Jesus’ point at all. Jesus is not saying that it’s evil for you to have good things. He’s not even saying that it’s evil for you to be wealthy.
Abraham, our father in faith, was plenty wealthy – both in this life, and in heaven with Lazarus.
So this isn’t a cautionary tale about the wickedness of money. Neither is Jesus saying that there is something wonderful about abject poverty and suffering. Lazarus isn’t rewarded for being poor any more than the rich man is punished for being rich. So, what is happening? Today’s Epistle reading from 1 John helps to clarify:
We love because He first loved us.
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar;
for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
The rich man is in torment because he rejected the Gospel. And in that, he also rejected the good works God prepared for him to do in this life. (Eph 2:10) Being merciful to Lazarus was part of that. This is why Luke does not write that the Lazarus was “laying” at the rich man’s gate. The Greek text says that Lazarus “ἐβέβλητο” – he “was laid.” Poor Lazarus was placed there by someone else. Lazarus was laid at the rich man’s gate by God so that he would care for him. But the dogs who tried to sooth Lazarus by licking his sores seemed more up to the task.
What makes a bad situation worse is that the rich man was supposed to be a believer. That’s why he calls Abraham “Father.” But Abraham does not call him “son” in return. He calls the rich man, “child.” Whatever lip-service he may have rendered, the rich man refused to live as a child of Abraham. He refused to live by faith, and so he refused to live in love and mercy. He was so hardened that even in death, he still treats Lazarus like some sort of errand boy. He does not even ask to be delivered out of torment, lest he end up next to him. Better to send him for some water or to deliver a message. Proof positive that hell is where you God lets you have your own way forever.
It’s a sobering warning for those who would live apart from faith, and apart from mercy. So, what does this have to do with you? You, dear Christians, actually do have faith.
Jesus came and found you desperate and derelict outside His Kingdom, outside His gate, and he picked you up and carried you through that watery gate and into His Kingdom, as those angels did with Lazarus. In Holy Baptism He washed you thoroughly. There, by Water and His Word, He created faith in you. By that faith you are descendants of Abraham and children of God; everything that the rich man was supposed to be. So what does faith in God and love for God look like?
You love the neighbor God has laid at your gate by showing mercy. And when you do that, you do it out of freedom and not out of fear. You don’t do it because you are scared of ending up in hell with the rich man. The Epistle again is very clear on this:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
You do not love others out of fear of punishment or hope of reward. That, sadly, is so often what people think motivates Christians. But that is just the notion of karma all over again. That is “what goes around comes around.” That is works-righteousness and self-justification; and that is not the Gospel.
We love because He first loved us. He loved us by taking on our flesh and bone. He loved us by taking our place on the cross outside the gate of Jerusalem. He loved us by applying that salvation to us through His Church, at font, pulpit, and altar. All of that was given to you for free, by grace, as gift. And so without fear of punishment or hope of reward, you are truly free to love those God has laid at your gate.
But you should be warned: There’s every chance that it won’t look at all dramatic or even very impactful. We live in a rather different context – one where we tend to do mercy work through institutions. Not because you can’t help or don’t want to, but because the need is so great, and some folks know how to use your resources better than you do. But that doesn’t mean that God hasn’t laid people at your gate.
There is a Poor Lazarus in your life who needs some help; sometimes in much the same way that Jesus described this morning. But there is more. Baby Lazarus needs his diapers changed, and something to eat. Friend Lazarus needs you to mow his lawn while gets better. Immigrant Lazarus might need work. Neighbor Lazarus needs some care and conversation, because he is desperately lonely. Enemy Lazarus needs some patience. Mentally ill Lazarus needs you to see him as you see others. All of them, and all of you, need the Jesus who comes in mercy this morning. He was testified to by Moses and the Prophets. Let us hear them.